Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experiments in Hypertrophy: Part 3 - Reps, Rest and Tempo.

In parts 1 and 2 I covered the best training splits and how many exercises to do. For part 1 and part 2 go here and here.

Note: if you don't want to read the whole post, skip to the bullet points at the end which tell you everything you need to know.

Rep Ranges.

The classic hypertrophy rep range is 8-12. Most guys (and women) training for mass spend the majority of their time in this rep range, with the occasional venture into the strength range of 6 or less during winter bulking phase and into the higher 12-15 'endurance' range when getting ready for summer.

But some athletes appear to increase muscle mass and never go near the 8-12 range. For example, Olympic weightlifters are normally way below this and Crossfitters are normally near maximal or doing some crazy high rep range (55 rep deadlifts anyone?).

So what does the research show. Previously in part 2 I outlined Brad Schoenfelds research where one group did 7x3 and another 3x10 and basically got the same results and improved muscle hypertrophy. However, the 7x3 workout took more than twice as long as the 3x10 and the strength group started to break down and complain of overtraining.

In a follow up study Schoenfeld et al (2016) did something interesting, they compared 3 sets of 2-4 reps with 3 sets of 8-12 in experienced lifters. This meant there wasn't a big difference in volume, 3 sets of 2-4 is achievable. Both groups did 7 exercises to failure in the prescribed rep range with 2 minutes rest between sets. They measured the cross sectional area of the triceps, biceps and lateral thigh before and after the 8 week trial. There was an increase in biceps in both groups but not much difference, an increase in triceps in both groups but not much difference and an increase in lateral thigh in both groups but a statistical significant difference between groups, with the 8-12 rep range working best. So even though the study shows moderate 8-12 rep range to be better, both schemes increased cross sectional area and when you look at the raw data it is really not that much different. The authors put some of the strength groups success down to the novelty of changing the programme, as most participants were training 8-12 before the trial. Unsurprisingly the group training heavy increased their squat 1RM the most as well.

But what about high reps?

Two studies stand out showing very high rep ranges, Schoenfeld et al (2015) compared 3 sets of 8-12 reps with 3 sets of 25-35 reps, using 7 exercises, 3 times a week.

Both rep schemes significantly increased the cross sectional area of the biceps, triceps and quads. There was no significant difference between the groups. None of the high rep group had lifted with this many repetitions before despite being experienced lifters. But they were experienced, this was not 'newbie' gains. It could be they were targeting the type I endurance fibres, whereas normally they would be targeting the same fibres all the time - the type II ones.

But don't be fooled, very high reps to failure is taxing, as Schoenfeld says "half the subjects in the low load group puked during the first week of training"!!

And in another study by Fink et al(2016) which was actually about rest periods (which I will get to later); they were using 4 sets of 40% 1RM for squat and bench press to failure,  in non experienced lifters (but involved in sports). All the participants showed significant increase in cross sectional area for triceps and thighs and they all increased their 1RM! The cross sectional increase was 9.8% and 10% in the triceps in both groups in the study. The paper doesn't say how many reps they were doing but the authors say it didn't drop below 12 even on the last set and using their data I have worked out the rep ranges would have been between at least 19 and 36 per set!

The authors say that low load training (less than 30% of 1RM) may cause a prolonged period of post exercise muscle synthesis compared to 90% 1RM.

We know that muscle growth is due to a whole range of factors such as mechanical tension, metabolic stress, chemical release, hormones and more.

In this case the conjecture is high reps may result in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, so called non contractile protein and fluid. For the average gym jock, this makes no difference. Mass is mass.

Where does this leave us?

From personal experience low strength reps don't increase muscle mass that much in me. But the mass it does produce is qualitatively in my opinion denser and more likely to be the functional strength and power fibres. What is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. I respond best to higher reps for hypertrophy.

In reality, for most trainers the rep range will vary with the exercise. For example, no one is going to try a 3 rep max rear delts flye, but a 15-25 rep rear delt flye seems reasonable. The same could be said for calves, if you are going to train them. This then comes down to the old adage about different parts of the body having different fibre mixes, if the calves are mainly type I endurance fibres then high reps would work best. Conversely, no one is probably going to do 3 x 35 reps for pull ups, so the exercise itself makes you go into moderate rep ranges.

Some things intuitively don't make sense, for example, if you do 35 reps of deadlifts you are inadvertently doing Crossfit. Whereas, 35 reps of a bodyweight 1 leg glute thrust would work.

The research does seem to show the benefits of high rep squats increasing muscle mass, see my post here on high rep squats. This is a taxing exercise but well worth putting in occasionally.

Exercises like cable flyes and machines lend themselves to high reps 12-15 whereas I think things like your classic dumbbell bench press are better in the 8-12 rep range.

I also like timed sets, set a stop watch for 35 or 45 or 55 seconds and then see how many bicep curls or press ups you can do with controlled tempo. This type of training keeps you honest!

I think many guys avoid high rep training because it is hard and burns, plus you have to leave your ego at the door and venture over to the chrome dumbbells.

Could you use interval endurance/ training?

Given that very high reps of 35 have caused hypertrophy could you not use sprint intervals on a bike or rower or ski erg or hill sprints to increase muscle hypertrophy? If the intervals are all out intense 10-20 seconds I can't see why they wouldn't work. The size of track cyclists legs is probably a testament to this.

I would also think exercises like prowler pushes could result in increases in muscle mass and strength depending on load and timing.

The perfect rep.

One thing I have really being trying to do over the last few months is feel every rep.

It doesn't matter what rep scheme you use if all your reps are crappy.

Really try and feel the muscle you are working on every rep. Let go of the ego of the weight, there is always the temptation to try and move up to the next set of dumbbells on the rack. Before you know it, you are going partial range and cheating the weight up.

Although there are times when partial range may be beneficial such as when doing 21's, in most cases go full range.

Also note in all the studies above they make the participants go to failure.

Lift with focus and intensity!

How long to rest?

The research is not consistent on this issue.

Schoenfeld et al (2015) compared resting 1 minute versus 3 minutes when training 3 sets of 8-12 reps. This research actually showed resting longer was more beneficial for hypertrophy. The authors state that in the long rest group "muscle was significantly greater in the anterior thigh and a trend for greater thickness in the triceps brachii"

However, when you look at the actual data from the study, there is not that much difference between groups. And as the authors state 1 minute is probably too short but 2 minutes would be long enough.

The difference in the anterior thigh would makes sense. As anyone knows, leg exercises such as squats are systemically taxing and need longer rest than some upper body exercises. A tricep kickback might only need 30 secs rest.Therefore, regional hypertrophy in the body may mean different rest periods (and rep ranges) for different body parts and different types of exercises.

Schoenfeld et al state

"Longer rest periods can allow for the completion of a higher number of repetitions and the maintenance of a higher training intensity and volume, and this may allow for greater muscle activation per set."

However, another researcher studying elderly men (average age 68) found a 1 minute rest period was better than a 4 minute one, and resulted in greater gains in lean mass and strength.

And don't forget how much longer it takes to rest an extra 2 minutes per set, that would be an extra 6 minutes per exercise for 3 sets, and an extra 42 minutes if you do 7 exercises. If you used those 40 minutes to do additional exercises and sets with less rest would you get better results?

And could you not maximize time efficiency with rest by doing supersets and if you are alternating limbs, say in a tricep exercise, one side is resting while the other is working?

High reps need less rest.

In a study already mentioned, Fink et al (2016) compared resting 30 seconds with resting 150 secs when lifting 40% 1RM squat and bench for 4 sets.

Both groups got increases in muscle mass and strength, with no significant difference between groups. And the blood work showed the metabolic stress for both groups was the same.

This shows that when doing very high reps, 20-35 - then you can rest less. Caveat being if you have ever tried to rest 30 secs between high rep squats you will blow up or throw up.

Where does this leave us?

Most studies that are not testing different rest periods seem to use 2 minutes.

In reality now I do not measure rest periods, by the time you changes your weights over, take a sip of water, write in your training diary what you just did you will be ready to go again. This means I am probably resting about 60-90 secs at most and no where near 3 minutes. The difference between resting 2 or 3 minutes is very marginal and other factors come into play

If you are mainly interested in strength, definitely rest longer.

Supersets are a good way to maximize rest efficiency, for example superset a dumbbell row with dumbbell chest press.

In my opinion, isolation exercises like tricep extensions and high rep exercises like rear delt flyes will need very little rest, 30 secs, legs will need more.

The caveat is special training techniques like descending sets and rest pause, where rest may be 10 secs or less, which I will cover in part 4 of this series.

In my experience, most clients and women will not rest enough when you are training them, they will rest a few seconds and try and go again. This means you need to educate them and make sure they are going to real failure!


There was a time when tempo was big, mainly because of Ian King and Poliquin programmes. You would see things like 51X0 and 3111 written on programmes.

Normally referring to how fast you should lower a weight, eccentric, then concentrically press it up and may be squeeze and hold a peak contraction.

This seems to have fallen out of favour recently. I would imagine probably because when you are trying to focus on perfect reps and counting to 15, the last thing you want to do is try to count exact tempo as well.

The caveat would be triphasic training, this is using eccentric, concentric and isometric contraction in a specific way. For an explanation of triphasic training go here, and how to apply it here.

The eccentric phase is the part of the movement causing muscle soreness. Sports like Olympic weightlifting and track cycling do not have much eccentric loading of muscle but can still result in muscle mass. (Yes, I'm aware these groups may do some training use eccentric loading and possibly have chemical assistance). Soreness is not necessary for growth but we all like the feeling of DOMS!

In most of the studies I have read they normally get the participants to do a 2 second eccentric and 1 second concentric. This would seem about about right, I would probably go closer to 3 second eccentric and possibly a 1 sec squeeze on things like latpulldowns , with an explosive but controlled concentric. But I wouldn't spend too much time thinking about this.

Of course, I am talking specifically about hypertrophy training here. Strength and power are different.

One thing I would avoid is super slow training, this seems pointless to me, as do super slow concentric phases.

No studies involved women!

Its important to note that none of the studies cited used women. It was the usual young male college student in most cases.

Would women respond differently to high reps, and different rest periods? Who knows. Someone needs to do that research.

Take away points.

  • You can increase muscle mass in all different types of rep ranges, 2-4, 8-12, 25-35
  • Moderate rep ranges are probably better than lower reps for hypertrophy.
  • Keep most of your training in the 8-12 rep range for hypertrophy but..
  • Try some high rep stuff, its hard, and occasional strength work. In other words periodise and vary. Leave your ego at the door, the chrome dumbbells are calling you!
  • You could try 3 total body sessions a week, one strength 3x2-4, one moderate 3x8-12, one high rep 3 x 20-30. 
  • Different exercises lend themselves naturally to different rep ranges and rest periods. 
  • Try some high reps squats!
  • Different body parts can be trained with different rep ranges and rest periods. Rest longer on legs.
  • Rest period, if you are an experienced lifter self selecting will work best.
  • Rest 30-45 secs for small body parts/isolation work and very high reps.
  • Rest 90 to 120 secs for compound movements, legs and taxing exercises.
  • The benefits of resting 3 minutes is marginal at best for hypertrophy and very boring and time consuming. If you have time give it a go and see if it makes a difference.
  • Tempo, don't get obsessed, slow eccentric 2-3 secs, fast concentric, squeeze hold where you can.
  • To increase 1RM do more work in the 2-4 rep range, and rest longer. Bizarrely your 1RM will also increase if you do high rep training with minimal rest.
  • Go to failure at some point. Not on every set, but definitely on some of your work sets.
  • Think about executing the perfect rep and feeling the muscle working probably trumps everything else for hypertrophy.
Next time special techniques - rest pause, descending sets and more.

No comments:

Post a Comment